On a blustery Sunday afternoon in December 2017, I headed to Seattle with my two teenage sons, Matthew (age 19) and Timothy (age 15). Our mission was simple: hand Matthew off to the Air Force at Seattle.
We left on our journey shortly after Matthew said goodbye to everyone at church. When we arrived in Seattle later that evening, Timothy and I planned to drop Matthew off at the Air Force processing station and then go to stay overnight with my brother, Gregory. The next morning, Timothy and I would watch Matthew take his final oath before he flew out with the Air Force to San Antonio for Basic Training.
As I drove the long stretch of highway from Coeur d’Alene Idaho to Seattle Washington, I reflected on the events leading up to this journey.
Update: since writing the post below, all spots in the first run of the course, taught by John Adams, are now full. Interested parties can register for the second run beginning December 4th and taught by Julie Gold.
Teachers wishing to qualify for pay increases by gaining graduate level credits now have the perfect opportunity. On September 25th, the Idaho-based education company, The Connecting Link, is launching their online course “Mindfulness in the 21st century Classroom” for the professional development of teachers. This Masters level course is being taught by educational psychologist John Adams and is being accredited through Argosy University, Antioch University, Benedictine University, Valparaiso University and Central Michigan University. It is designed to give educators at all levels an overview of recent research on mindfulness practices. Even better, the course provides step by step guidance on how to integrate mindfulness practices into the classroom.
If you’re interested, here are some links you may want to check out:
In the video below, Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr shares evidence from brain science about what happens when our devices (particularly the smartphones) infuse into our lives perpetual distractibility, multitasking and split attentiveness. He shows that what science is finding (and you can see footnotes to the actual peer-reviewed studies in Carr’s book The Shallows) is that there is a trade-off whereby certain cognitive functions become diminished.
That much isn’t surprising, but what I found really interesting is which cognitive functions are compromised.
A study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory. found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.
In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.
For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys.
To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.
One morning, on a brisk autumnal day in 2015, I drove myself to the hospital in Spokane Washington. My destination was the office of an expert psychiatrist, Dr. Zimmermann.
After parking my car and finding the appropriate building, I took a long elevator ride to the top of the hospital building where my psychiatrist evaluation would commence.
I had been told that Dr. Zimmermann might be able to help with some mental, emotional and physical problems I had developed earlier in the year. Still, I was a little nervous. I liked psychologists and professional counselors—warm-hearted people who listened to your problems with infinite patience. But I was nervous about psychiatrists, who I envisioned walking around in white coats dispensing prescription drugs that merely masked over people’s real problems. Did Dr. Zimmermann fit the stereotype? I would find out in a few minutes.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Dr. Graham Taylor of the Taylor Study Method. The topic of our interview was brain fitness but our conversation ended being all over the map. We talked about educational reform, having focus amidst distractions, the importance of thinking outside the box, Common Core, emotional intelligence, ancient and modern memory techniques, the psychological insight of Homer, and much much more. Here are some observations I made during the interview.
I began this series in 2013 after reading Steve Wasserman’s comments in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of newspapers across the country, the erosion of book reading following the rise of the internet, and the shocking lack of coverage this crisis is receiving in the national media. I quoted Wasserman’s observation that “the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”